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Al-Qaida militants in Yemen are pulling out of two coastal cities east of the key southern port of Aden following tribal-led negotiations, security officials and witnesses said on Thursday.
U.S. troops have been on the ground in Yemen for approximately two weeks supporting Yemeni and Emirati forces that are fighting a pitched battle against al-Qaida militants near the city of Mukalla, Pentagon officials said Friday.
U.S. military activity in Yemen has been relegated mostly to airstrikes for more than a year following the overthrow of the government in the capital Sanaa by Houthi rebels, but Friday's announcement signals a new level of involvement in the conflict - one that the Pentagon described as temporary without putting a timeline on it.
The U.S. forces are working with Yemeni forces loyal to the old government, not the Houthis, officials said. The officials also said that the actions U.S. forces are engaged in are focused on al-Qaida and are separate from a Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis. The United States has assisted the Saudi-led coalition with midair refueling aircraft and some reconnaissance capabilities.
"We view this as short term," said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.
According to Davis, the United States is providing a "small number" of military personnel as well as medical teams, maritime support and intelligence-gathering assets including airborne surveillance aircraft to the Emirati and Yemeni forces fighting al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP.
Davis would not describe what type of U.S. personnel were on the ground. U.S. Special Operations forces operated in Yemen in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks but were forced to withdraw when civil war broke out in 2015. The U.S. troops, Davis said, would help advise the Arab ground forces and assist with operational planning.
Aside from the troops on the ground, Davis said ships from the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit have staged off Yemen's coast. The flotilla of U.S. ships includes the USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship with Marine infantry and aircraft, and two destroyers, the USS Gravely and the USS Gonzalez.
Davis said the United States has conducted four strikes against al-Qaida militants since April 23, killing 10 militants and wounding one. In March the Pentagon announced it had killed more than 70 al-Qaida fighters in Yemen in one of the largest U.S. strikes conducted in the country since the beginning of operations there. According to a Long War Journal database, the United States has conducted roughly 140 airstrikes in Yemen since 2002.
AQAP has exploited Yemen's civil war to expand its influence throughout the country, officials said, and has also managed to hold a number of key towns since the start of the conflict.
The influx of U.S. troops is intended to help Emirati and Yemeni forces wrest the port city of Mukalla and surrounding areas from AQAP. The group has held the city for the past year and in recent days has been mostly driven out and into the surrounding countryside.